Janelle Monáe has spent most of her career distancing herself from her humanity. Dirty Computer lets us into her journey from accepting that humanity tentatively, to embracing it gloriously. Monáe made her major-label debut with an EP called Metropolis: Suite I (The Chase), and it sounds like an excerpt from a high-concept Broadway musical, in which Monáe plays an android named Cindi Mayweather who is on the run from bounty hunters after having fallen in love with a human. She followed this with two more Mayweather albums, The ArchAndroid and The Electric Lady, which combined an increasingly R+B sound with the deeply prog-rock concept. Throughout the whole thing, Monáe was Cindi, and the inhuman persona extended even into her public presence, where she was famously known to deflect questions about her love life with, “I only date androids.”
All these albums were presented as parts of a larger whole. Metropolis was called “Suite I” right in its title, while ArchAndroid was labeled “Janelle Monáe Suites II and III” (and structured with overtures to each suite included in the track list.) Not only that, the concept seemed to grow as it went on. Metropolis had a series of four dots on its cover with one filled in, and ArchAndroid had three of those four dots filled in, suggesting that the whole story would consist of four suites. But when Electric Lady came out, suddenly there were seven dots with five filled in, alongside the legend “Janelle Monáe Suites IV and V”, and Cindi’s story continuing throughout the tracks, with apparently two more chapters to go.
Five years passed between Electric Lady and Dirty Computer. In that time, the Metropolis project seems to have been sidelined, because this album has no dots, no suites, and no Cindi. Instead, it stars Janelle Monáe, for the first time, as herself.
That’s not to say her sci-fi fascinations have gone away, and the opening title track continues the high-tech metaphors that have pervaded her career. She calls herself a dirty computer, saying that she’s crashing slowly, full of bugs, and needs someone to fix her drive. “Take A Byte” says “Your code is programmed not to love me”, and “Django Jane” references ArchAndroid. But as the album progresses, the technological trappings fall away, replaced with more and more organic imagery.
This trend climaxes in “PYNK”, a celebratory song whose touchstones are pure biology: tongue, brain, lips, skin, thighs, eyelids, and heart, all around an implied vagina, and the blood that flows through the whole system. Then it all comes together in “I Got The Juice”. The central metaphor looks at first blush like an extension of “PYNK” — Monáe’s juice is the liquid that flows through her body, and in particular between her thighs. “Now go on girl and use that sauce”, she urges, a sauce that isn’t just sexual but is pure power and passion, squeezed from the passionfruit.
But she also says “you’re so damn electro-cute” and “Baby I’m the plug”. She reprises the “dirty computer” image in the outro. Now liquids and computers really don’t mix well, but “juice” has another meaning, as another kind of power: electricity. Thus “I Got The Juice” lets Monáe slip her techno-costume back on when she wants to, without sacrificing a single cell of the organic body she finally claims for herself on this album.
Monáe’s body is the most fundamental part of her, but humanity isn’t the only identity she fully declares on Dirty Computer. Womanhood is her next step up the ladder, as “PYNK” and “I Got The Juice” both show, but right beyond that is race. We get the first part of this in the rap that ends “Crazy, Classic, Life”, in which she talks about how she may be friends with white people but their divisions are inescapable: “The same mistake, I’m in jail, you on top of shit / You living life while I’m walkin’ ’round mopping shit.” That rap ends with this quatrain:
I was kicked out, said I’m too loud
Kicked out, said I’m too proud
But all I ever really felt was stressed out
Kinda like my afro when it’s pressed out
Monáe always said that androids in her work stood for “the other”, but here she steps into the otherness she’s always felt as a black woman, and inhabits it with a vulnerability expressed within a perfect metaphor that comes back again to her body.
This persona comes back at the end of “Screwed”, and reaches its full flower in “Django Jane”, her fantastically fierce declaration of independence as a powerful black woman. Here, Monáe doesn’t have to make up a character’s history — she possesses her own: “Mama was a G, she was cleanin’ hotels / Papa was a driver, I was workin’ retail.” These details correspond to Monáe’s real biography, as do the references to her role in the Oscar-winning Moonlight.
“Black girl magic” is what she calls her art, in an extraordinary vocal moment of joyous defiance, and she’s almost exactly right. There’s just one dimension more, as Monáe revealed in an excellent Rolling Stone article: queerness. Or, as she puts it, “someone who has been in relationships with both men and women — I consider myself to be a free-ass motherfucker.” There are hints of this through the album, from the pervasive celebration of pussy power to her claim that she’s got “juice for all my wives.”
Here is Monáe’s bravest step, her ownership of being not just “highly melanated” but queer and free. “I Like That” is her affirmation of everything that comes before, her celebration of being “the random minor note you hear in major songs.” Janelle Monáe doesn’t have to be an android anymore. After more than a decade as Cindi Mayweather, she’s discovered at last that the far more compelling story is her own.